For a fortnight in April I had the pleasure of a stay at the British School at Athens. As well as digging-in for some serious research time (and eating spinach pies, and tortoise hunting in the garden), I spent an afternoon at the Cycladic Art Museum and their wonderful temporary exhibition, Hygeia: Health, Illness, Treatment from Homer to Galen. Among the many fabulous things on display – including some definitely not for the squeamish – there was this little chap, labelled “Perfume Vase in the Form of a Squatting Komast, 600-575 BC’ (picture below).
Our komast, or ‘reveller’, is about 10 cm tall, and may or may not be naked depending on how you interpret the dots and swirls which cover his body. There are many other examples of similar vases from the Archaic period, thought to have been made mostly in Corinth. Why is he in an exhibition about health and healing? The answer is partly because he’s a perfume bottle, designed to make the body smell nice, but some have also suggested he is squatting to – in non-technical terms – have a poo. In the exhibition, this vase is next to a urinal (amis) from the Athenian Agora. Added to this, excitingly for the linguist, there is a short text scratched across his back and shoulders (drawing below — and of course he was facing forward in the cabinet, so I found myself doing yoga to try to see his back).
The first part the text may be interpreted as χέζει (chezei), the 3rd person singular (‘he’) of a verb which LSJ coyly translates as ‘ease oneself’, found many times in Aristophanes. So the vase is indeed, it would appear, having a poo, and text and object are in concord. But why? This is an oil flask. It this all a joke…? There is however an alternative interpretation: these letters may write instead the word ψήχηι, ‘rub down’, i.e. instructions on how to use the contents of the flask, so something entirely different and nothing to do with excretion at all. Other ways of reading these letters have also been proposed, each inspiring a different story about the writer of the text and their relationship with the pot. It may however be that our komast isn’t actually doing anything surprising at all, but rather sitting, only in a way which is less familiar to the Western Europeans who first commented on such objects when they were published. Squatting for us is perhaps inherently associated with toilet practices, whereas in the original somewhat alien context of the object’s creation this may not have been the case. Here we have a good example of how latent cultural assumptions can be tacitly applied to an ancient object, and can change what we think about that object. This also reminds us how our early Greek texts are not so easy to read as we might think, and how object and text can interact in ways which radically alter what we believe the original scratcher of his message was saying, and why he or she were saying it.
Copyright © 2015 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.